By R.G. Summers
The Onlookers were just a part of life for the people of Oakham, Massachusetts. The community had accepted them, for they had always been present and it seemed as though they always would be. No one knew what the Onlookers were, though sometimes the people would discuss the Onlookers as people might discuss the weather or the local sports team. Oakham was a remote town in a rural area though with a moderate climate, so they didn’t have much weather and they certainly didn’t have a sports team.
Just about the only conclusion the community had reached about the Onlookers was that they weren’t ghosts. No one had ever seen an Onlooker that resembled a deceased person, nor did they reflect the normal human range of emotions. Their faces were always blank, save for a look of mild curiosity or confusion they displayed when watching the residents. Somewhat transparent and muted in color, they did resemble ghosts.
They passed through doors and walls and all tangible things; they came and went at will. For generations they had peaceably haunted the houses and streets of Oakham. The community that had grown up with them always tolerated, and sometimes ignored, their presence. It wasn’t that hard—the Onlookers ignored each other too. They were mute, made little motion, and never interacted with any other creature. Though solitary beings, they were drawn to the spectacle of human interaction and were always watching.
The Onlookers stood in nurseries and watched mothers put their babies to sleep. They loomed beside bus stops to see children board school buses in the morning. They followed teenage couples to otherwise secluded locations and skeptically observed them kiss. Sometimes they slunk into houses to witness married couples fight. There was nothing they didn’t seem to take an interest in and there was no way to keep them out. However, they did nothing and told no one. Their secrets safe and their lives—for all intents and purposes—private, the residents were apathetic to the Onlookers’ presence.
Life in the tiny town of Oakham probably would have continued like this, if Wyatt Murphy hadn’t been born.
His deafness was identified early on in his childhood, and he could not be taught how to speak. Despite this handicap, Wyatt was dearly loved by his parents and they were resolved to find a way to communicate with their only son. His mother began learning and teaching her boy sign language immediately. However, this interaction drew an uncommonly large crowd of Onlookers. The Murphys found that at any given time there was a disproportionate number of Onlookers in various rooms of their house, milling around and waiting to watch Wyatt and his mother.
The neighbors began to talk. They discussed the Murphys and their Onlookers as one might discuss a recent windstorm or a local sports team losing a championship. Nobody knew what to make of it, and everybody found it somewhat unsettling.
Then, one day, the Onlookers left the Murphy house and went back to watching everyone else. The peace of mind that was provided by this return to normalcy was short-lived. The Onlookers watched. And then they talked. They spoke only to each other with their hands in an eerie and indecipherable sign language of their own design. Ever the same in every other respect, it drew heads to see one Onlooker intently, but inexpressively, conversing with another. Everyone knew what the Onlookers were talking about. They had nothing else to discuss but their single mutual interest: the interactions between the Oakham residents.
The people would see Onlookers pointing them out and groups of Onlookers staring at them. Suddenly the people were aware whenever an Onlooker was watching them.
The Oakham residents grew uneasy. No one could bear to speak or act freely when they knew whatever they did would be related to a whole community of Onlookers. People didn’t want to be seen fighting or kissing, boarding busses or putting babies to sleep. No one wanted their lives to be the focus and discussion of the Onlookers.
Some people left Oakham, moving away from the ghostly observers as the Murphy family did, but most of the community stayed. They became subdued and static though. Whenever Onlookers were present people would refrain from speaking or doing anything but the most routine and ordinary of every day tasks. If they could afford to do so, people would sit still in their bedrooms and living rooms, waiting for the dreaded creatures to leave and haunt someone else.
Eventually, the Onlookers did leave. They faded away one by one during dark nights. They passed through living room walls one last time. When they went outside, they didn’t come back. The paranoia had been instilled in the community though, and all the adults found it impossible to shake the feeling that they were being watched. Though the children quickly rebounded from the peculiar incident, their parents seemed shaken by the experience.
Over the years Oakham became a very quiet place. People took solitude where they could find it, and refrained from much social interaction for fear that it would bring the Onlookers back. Though the children in time grew into adulthood and continued to live in their homey community, the older generation found a very different fate.
They grew quiet until they were silent. They were static until they grew motionless. They refused to live, and thus began to fade away. Transparency found them slowly, so no one really noticed the transition. The muted colors set in gradually, so no one realized that they were becoming Onlookers until the deed had already transpired, and by that time it was too late to repent the reclusive nature they had adopted. The residents regretted their transformation though, and became fixated with human interactions that were part of the life they had forfeited. Once again, the Onlookers became a part of life for the people of Oakham, Massachusetts.
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R.G. Summers lives in Seattle, more or less, and has great hopes for the future. They mostly including being able to pay the rent by writing, and someday even owning a crock-pot. Her science-fiction novel, Conscious, is now available.
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